Prove your humanity

When she was just 16, Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania’s Ashley Funk was already up to big things—most notably, suing the state over its handling of climate change. The case was part of a national effort by Our Children’s Trust to get young people to demand their governments protect their generation from the threat of climate change. In Funk’s case, it focused on a part of the Pennsylvania constitution called the Environmental Rights Amendment—which required the state to secure a healthy, clean environment for generations to come. That, Funk argued, meant the state had an obligation to do more to combat climate change. Though the case has taken many twists and turns in the past six years, just last month, a court ruled that Funk and her co-plaintiffs can’t compel Pennsylvania to take any further action beyond what regulators are required to do under existing climate and pollution laws. But Funk says that’s not the end of the fight. And recently, we caught up with Funk, now 22, to talk about the case and her own future as an environmental activist.

The Allegheny Front: So what was your reaction to the court’s decision?

Ashley Funk: I was very disappointed. There was a recent victory in the state of Washington where the court essentially said that regulators in the state need to make regulations to [curb] climate change in order to meet the constitutional rights of these young people who were filing the suit. That was a big victory, and I thought we would at least proceed with our case. So I was, like, ‘Really, Pennsylvania?’—because I was riding the wave of these other victories and I thought it would have influence. But when I looked into the decision that the court released, I was a lot more excited to push our case forward with an appeal, because they did make some rulings that do help our case.

AF: Tell us more about that.

Funk: While they ruled that we need to be realistic with an Environmental Rights Amendment, they did determine that we have standing—which means that we are affected by climate change and had a right to be suing. And they also ruled that the court had jurisdiction over the case—so they are the ones that should be deciding this in the end. So even though they didn’t allow the case to proceed, those are two big rulings in our favor that we can use as we move forward to appeal.

LISTEN: Ashley Funk on Her Landmark Climate Change Lawsuit

AF: Governor Tom Wolf has said that the state is going to move ahead with the federal Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions, even though that’s been stalled by the Supreme Court. Does that have any bearing on your case?

Funk: Not necessarily. Again, what we want is for Pennsylvania itself to have a yardstick for saying whether or not they’re doing enough. By law, we think that we need to do that because the constitution says that they need to secure a healthy, clean environment for generations to come. So we want to have it—in law—what they need to do. And so even if they are using the Clean Power Plan, we want the state to have its own law, in case anything happens to the Clean Power Plan—which is possible. We want to have a law within Pennsylvania to push them to act on climate change no matter what is happening on a federal level.

We’re not telling them to establish a law right now to limit carbon emissions as a result of this ruling. But what we’re asking is that they actually look into whether Pennsylvania is doing enough to mitigate climate change in its neck of the woods. In our petition for rulemaking, they essentially said that Pennsylvania was doing enough. But they can’t tell us the numbers, they can’t tell us why, they can’t tell us how much they’re actually reducing their carbon footprint. And that’s what we want, because we don’t think Pennsylvania is doing enough. And if they establish these limits saying Pennsylvania needs to do ‘this’ every year in order to play its part in combating climate change, then the law would have to adjust to meet that.

AF: So you’re appealing, but even if the lawsuit doesn’t ultimately succeed, do you feel like it has made a difference?

Funk: I think our case definitely made a difference because we moved all the way to a hearing in front of the Environmental Quality Board. And the Environmental Quality Board essentially put the obligation on the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to ask them, ‘Are you doing enough?’ and ‘Prove it to us.’ So the DEP had to have people, for like three months, compiling this report—their argument—explaining why they were doing enough. In the end, they argued they were doing enough: They pulled it back to, in my opinion, an outdated climate action plan that Pennsylvania had established. But I think that process of having to go through their records and having a team of people working on whether or not the DEP was addressing climate change—that action itself is valuable. It’s making people in the DEP question their actions.

I also think it has been really powerful getting these younger people on board to fight for their legal rights for climate change. For me, I have a much more nuanced understanding of the legal system and how my constitutional rights can be used to establish legislation. And I think I’ll carry that forward for the rest of my environmental career.

AF: So what’s next for you? How does this case change what you want to focus on going forward?

Funk: I’m very interested in local community development. In particular, I’m interested in water infrastructure for small communities. I plan on moving forward with rural development [work], and I especially want to do this in southwestern Pennsylvania: diversifying economies, making it so that people don’t have to rely on things like natural gas or coal to support their economies. At the same time, local community development work is slow and on the ground. And I don’t always feel like I’m making these big strides to combat climate change. So I want to be working on a bigger scale because it’s an issue that’s so pressing. We’re already seeing the effects of climate change so significantly. West Virginia just experienced severe flooding and that can also impact our communities in southwestern Pennsylvania. And the lawsuit has given me an opportunity to work on a state and national scale while I’m doing the local work. So I want to continue to do it for as long as the case survives. It’s like kids versus global warming. But I’ve been doing this since I was 16, and now I’m 22. So I’m not so much a kid anymore.


Ashley Funk just graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in environmental studies and is now finishing an engineering degree at Olin College in Massachusetts. For more on Funk’s story, check out WBEZ’s profile “Coming Home to Coal Country.”